Bible Study, Matthew, Uncategorized

The Irony of John the Baptist

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13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[d]by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[e]” — Matthew 3:13 – 4:4

John has just rebuked the Pharisees and Sadducees.  He has warned them, that if they have come into the wilderness in order to control him, then they should know that there is one coming after him whose sandals even he is not worthy to tie.  This just makes his next response all the more ironic though.  I have to think the words flew out of his mouth before he could think, which gave both Jesus and John an honest glimpse into John’s heart.  It also gives us a glimpse as to why John was not the chosen Messiah.  In Greek the word Matthew uses is dieKOluen, die being a form of dia or “through” and KOluen from kóluó for “forbid”.  When Jesus requested John to baptize Him, the one who had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the one who preached repentance and preparation for receiving a new covenant, John the Baptist thoroughly forbid Jesus from doing this.  In the end, John’s answer to Emmanuel was the same as everyone else’s, John said, “no”.

John must have had a preconceived idea of how things would go when Jesus arrived.  He had been waiting in the desert for a long time preparing himself and others for the Kingdom of Heaven.  But when the Messiah appeared, His first request was not for command of the Temple, or for an army, but instead for John to simply baptize him.  John probably only realized  after he rebelled that he had had these preconceived conditions in his heart as to how Jesus should move and act.  It was a small rebellion, momentary but powerful.  John sinned, not because he was wrong, but because only God is right.  John had tradition, biblical teaching and the law, but those things aren’t God.

One of my favorite descriptions of Christ comes from C.S. Lewis’ description of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan is described as not being tame, but as being good.  In this week’s reading, Jesus is good, but he is not tame.  In this instance, the I AM declared that his son should be baptized and Jesus’ response to John clearly restates this request.  Jesus knows that the Father has his reasons for sending Him in this space at this moment in time.  Following for Jesus is not tied to a legalistic adherence to scripture, but in an obedient relationship to the Father.  To his credit, John can practice what he preaches.  At this moment, the one who has been preaching repentance will himself repent when Jesus answers his rebuke with a simple request for obedience.

Jesus calls John out of thinking about the past and into the present.  He uses the Greek word arti which means “at this precise present moment”.  Jesus’ baptism by John is in accord with the God’s will and occurs in God’s time.  This will be a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry as time and time again he goes against perceived rules and religious teachings that have been established in legalism and not love.  Jesus will call all things into the present, living out the law among men.  One of my favorite quotes is by Catholic priest James Martin that “there is a reason Jesus didn’t come down as a book”.  I think this baffles us today as much as it did John and others in Jesus’ day.  The obedience to deliver baptism in this present moment in Matthew seems to unlock the further baptism John believed Jesus would deliver, as the Holy Spirit descends and the voice of the Father speaks.  God’s will is moving and it is unpredictable, it is unknowable, but it is good.  It is what the people have come into the wilderness to find.

From this point on in Matthew, we know that all cards are on the table.  John who has been sure of what he has been proclaiming is himself unsure of how it will be implemented.  The Messiah of the Living God has arrived and already He has refused to play the part we have scripted for Him.  His light illumines our darkness.  We are infected with rebellion.  We have taken the scriptures not as a path to salvation, but as leverage for control.  We would be our own gods, all of us, even John.  And now there is one who would compete for the throne of our hearts.  This God is not of wood, or stone.  He is not a manifestation of our imaginations, or a product of our making.  He is flesh and blood, He is freedom, He is life and He has arrived.

John is right when he teaches that Jesus will bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire, he just doesn’t anticipate that Jesus will first submit himself to this baptism.  This is the way of Christ, He leads where we cannot go, endures what we cannot endure and obeys what we cannot obey.  As Jesus emerges from the water, a voice from Heaven claims His son, the Spirit descends, and then the fire begins.  The word that Matthew uses is pur, the same word means fire as well as trials.  Baptism follows repentance, but purification follows baptism, and this baptism is one by fire and trials.  We get a confirmation in Matthew that this indeed is the way, as Christ departs from his baptism by John and enters deeper into the wilderness for 40 days.

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Forty days is a long time, honestly forty minutes is a long time when you’re tired and thirsty.  This is where Jesus places himself prior to his first meeting with Satan.  Forty days without eating and then the first temptation.  The temptation seems so simple reading about it from a distance, but when we’re physically compromised, our physicality is the first place where we break down spiritually.  Anyone who coaches knows this.  It was Vince Lombardi who once said “fatigue makes cowards of us all”.  After the mountaintop experience, the trials in the valley will very likely first take shape around our physical bodies.  It is difficult to escape Maslows pyramid as a framework for existence.  What we will eat, what we will drink and what we will wear  Jesus will later teach as being what pagans run after, and what our Heavenly Father provides.  But the path for passing from faith into belief involves extending ourselves into positions of vulnerability like where Christ finds himself, deep in the wilderness and at the end of a long fast.

The attack is subtle.  On the surface it appears to be a straightforward attack on Jesus’ physical vulnerability, but that is only part of the strategy.  The tip of the iceberg.  The real temptation, is to acquiesce to Satan’s’ use of scripture to validate turning stones into bread.  This level of spirituality involves understanding that what is right is not always what is good.  Satan quotes scripture out of context, it makes sense by the letter, it makes sense physically, but spiritually it moves our faith from being in the Father, to being in ourselves.  We want the blessing of being right without losing the assurance of being safe.

The lesson of the first temptation is that through Christ, we are more than physical.  This is what should be different for believers.  This is the first step toward having endurance in trials.  The knowledge that we are more than our physical bodies gives us freedom.  Immortality is an escape from the space-time continuum in which all of reality is trapped.  The space of our bodies and the the weight of the past and the tyranny of the future are the first three captors that we are set free from once we begin our baptism of fire.  This revelation is also true of God’s law, it is more than physical, it is more than a book, it is a relationship.  It is a dance between creation and creator.  It is not just the right thing, but the right time.  It is perfect, and we are invited to play a part, but we cannot control it.  Our prayer along with John’s for Emmanuel has been answered, and now we are free to rely less on bread and more on every word from the mouth of God.

 

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Bible Study, Matthew, Uncategorized

Turning Dust into Good Soil

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And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

–Matthew 3:9-12

There were probably a number of things that John didn’t like about the Pharisees and Sadducees, we kind of get that with the whole “generation of vipers” thing in the previous verses, but John cuts from generalities to specifics in these next verses pretty quickly.  Entitlement seems to be at the top of his list of grievances.  Entitlement is on the tip of his tongue as to why they should flee from the coming wrath, and why he is surprised they even know to be worried.  It is spiritual entitlement that has blinded these religious teachers from seeing the inadequacy of their own self-righteousness and it is entitlement that keeps them from seeing their need for God’s mercy.

The effect of entitlement for the Pharisees and Sadducees is a sort of blindness to the humble yet powerful origins of being formed from the earth.  John is quick to remind them that the God they profess to follow, the God they claim to worship, can still, to this very day, form children of Abraham from dust as he did in the ancient times.  There is no birthright, no inheritance of righteousness, no kingdom on this Earth that we can be born into that will provide safe passage into the kingdom of Heaven that is drawing near.  John knows that he and all who are gathered in the wilderness are what the Apostle Paul would later describe in his letter to the Corinthians as choikos, a Greek word meaning “made of earth.”  Is is the humility of understanding that he was created from dust that allows John both to grasp as well as preach God’s revealed plan of transforming dust into good soil for receiving the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is this theme of good soil that Jesus will continually refer to in His ministry as well.

47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man,so shall we[g] bear the image of the heavenly man.

I Corinthians 15: 47-49

In the warning that follows to the Pharisees and Sadducees John is not vague when describing the coming wrath of God.  He speaks of an ax which is poised to strike at the root of all who do not produce good fruit.  This analogy is interesting on many layers.  John is in the wilderness to announce the coming of the Messiah, the root of Jesse.  The One whom the Gospel of John teaches that all things were made through.  Paul later tells us in his letter to the Colossians that because all things were made through Christ, He holds  all things in existence together.  The ax will strike at this root of existence and all these things will be ultimately be undone.

For the Pharisees and Sadducees, their root is in the law and the covenant. This law will be fulfilled in their presence and a new covenant will be made within their lifetimes.  The ax also cuts at the root of all who have come into the desert to hear John and all of us who read the story 2000 years later still seeking God.  All the places where we find our security, all the marks we make toward an enduring legacy, all the ways we seek immortality, all the places apart from God where we find root will also be undone.  What is choikos will pass away as The Son of Man and Son of God walks the earth, as He teaches and heals and speaks among us.  Where soul, spirit, earth, and the Breath of God meet, that is where we will find the Living God.  It is here in the new age being ushered in by the Messiah where we will “live and move and have our being” Acts 17:28.

John understands his place within God’s plan, he knows the power of repentance but also the limits of a baptism by water alone.  John knows that while he has the power to challenge the systematic oppression of the Pharisees and Sadducees, there are sandals which he is unfit to tie.  It is by purios, a purifying fire that the branches will be burned that are not fruitful, and it is by threshing and winnowing that God will work redemption for all of his people.

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The process of winnowing is one that all the people in the wilderness listening to John would have been familiar with.  Wheat when gathered must first be trodden down and pressed in order for the kernels to separate from the chaff.  After this process, both the wheat and chaff are tossed into the air for the wind to separate.  The wind carries the dry dead chaff away, and the kernels of wheat fall to floor to be gathered and stored in the barn.  The chaff and dry grass is then burned.  It is this analogy that John uses to describe the redemptive and atoning ministry of the coming Messiah.  It is through this same process that each of us grows closer to God as well.  As we grow more like God, we grow more completely into who we were created to be.  As we shed the chaff we reveal the wheat, and when that wheat falls on good soil, it produces good fruit.

It is tempting to read this story and interpret that only some will be baptized with fire, that some people are wheat and some are chaff, but this doesn’t match the analogy.  Perhaps more importantly it doesn’t match the example that Jesus will give us in the upcoming verses as He himself gets baptized, receives the Holy Spirit and the journeys into the desert to be tempted, refined, and purified by fire.  If you have reached the wilderness because you have no where else to go, if this world is not your home because it is a corrupt, flawed and pale image of the One who created it, then you know that you have a lot of chaff to get rid of.

But if you are comfortable in the chaff, if the system keeping the chaff in place works in your favor, then the prospect of shedding it, of allowing it to burn, of valuing the simpleness of grain that is at the heart makes you nervous.  The fact is, it takes faith to believe there is any wheat in ourselves or in others at all.  The irony of entitlement is that it is rooted in fear.  It is the fear of losing, fear of not being enough that causes us to keep a death grip on what is only really ours through grace.  It is entitlement that robs us of the ability to extend the same grace that we ourselves have received and benefited from to others.

120810354_c11926ddfe_bThe Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t wander into the desert to pursue God or to find freedom, they were not trying to escape, they in fact were the jailers.  They were the beneficiaries of an unjust system, one that claimed supreme power, morality and justice but one that John hinted actually possessed none of those.  Entitlement causes us to assume that some are saved and some are judged, but humility reveals that we are all deserving of judgement, and all in need of saving.  Entitlement causes us to remain dry and lifeless as dust and chaff, but it is repentance that moves our souls toward God, and it is the waters of baptism that prepare our hearts of stone to be soil ready to receive the kingdom.

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Matthew, Uncategorized

Matt:2 A Case Study in Preparing for Emmanuel

 

wisemenFor 430 years Israel was captive in Egypt.  It has now been 400 years again since the last minor prophet of Israel has walked the earth, the Spirit has been silent.  But things are beginning to change, visions are being seen, angels are visiting men and magi from a far off land have left their home country to follow the signs that the Anointed, the King of the Jews is to be born.  The clock is ticking down, in 30 years the time of serving in bondage to sin will be up and the new Exodus will begin.

A counterfeit King sits on the throne.  Herod has secured his position through political wrangling, intimidation and murder including that of his sons and wife.  He has ruled by fear, but in his old age he is finding the arrival of the magi disturbing.  The tables have turned, he in fact is now ruled by fear.

He pretends to be a follower, just has he pretends to be the Jewish king, but his heart is filled with murderous plots, desperate to hold on to the power and position that he has given so much of himself to achieve.  The faith of the magi is not something that he can possibly comprehend.  The innocence and wonder of a people looking for a king, searching for a Messiah is foreign to one who has dedicated his life setting himself up as king.  For the aging ruler, any challenge, even in the form of a baby, especially in the form of a baby is a threat that must be met with violence.  Hate is the only emotion available where hope should dwell.

It is not only Herod who is disturbed at the news that the period of silence might be at an end, that the Living God may be moving among men once again, it is all of Jerusalem with him.  This does not speak well of the Hellenized version of Judaism that had emerged in the culture, one driven by politics and power with just enough religiosity to appear righteous.

This is the prequel, the last chapter of Matthew before we skip to Jesus’ adult life.  This is a world without God, one ruled by fear and steeped in corruption that the infant Jesus enters into.  It is one where a few, a remnant are still faithful, where those still with wonder and innocence seek a better world.  Where the plots of the politically powerful are defeated by the obedient faith of the righteous willing to listen to a God who speaks in dreams.  Those with the least are the most able to follow, and those who have benefitted most from Grace have used their privilege to grab even more power hardening their hearts and blinding themselves to where they are unable to extend any grace to others.

Herod’s reign has been long and his reputation is well-known, which makes it all the more surprising that magi wise enough to pursue the Jewish messiah and observant enough to notice and follow his star, were naive enough to inquire at the castle from the sitting king of the Jews as to where the new King of the Jews would be born.  But it is just these qualities that allow the magi to find the Christ child and also to escape Herod’s plans; their ability to seek and find God allows them to commune in a way that protects them on their return trip.  Reliance on God is also what allows Joseph to ironically escape the slaying of the first-born of Galilee fleeing in the night back into the land of Egypt.

The stage is set, and the long silence is about to be ended as God calls his son out of Egypt.  Man’s power and plans are on a head on collision course with God’s sovereignty.  The King is returning.  Those with hearts to ask, and seek and knock have now found him and their joy is complete.  He has been anointed, he is the Anointed, Death is going to be swallowed up in Life as innocence and obedience of the spiritual meet the lies, greed and corruption of the carnal head-on.

So, how do we meet God when He comes knocking?  Are we blinded by our own power and privilege?  Do we obey and follow without question?  Are we seekers, reliant on communion with God, simply looking to see His face here on Earth and present our gifts?  I don’t know the answer and I believe this is as important a subject of prayer as any other, but I will say as a coach and athlete I subscribe to the theory that when it comes down to it in a game, we usually play the way we practice.  I don’t think you get all the way to Jerusalem following a star by being a person who doesn’t listen to God when he speaks to you in dreams.  And I fearfully say that if we are the types of people who are secure in our own power, safe and well fed, we need to prayerfully consider whether we would welcome the true King in our little kingdom if he returned.  Would we be filled with hope or plot in hate?  Would we be filled with fear or step out in Faith?

You see, it is an ugly truth that as much as we would like to identify totally with the obedience of Joseph and the faith of the magi, there is part of us that contains the cruelty and greed of Herod.  We  would set ourselves up as stewards of our own little Kingdoms.  There is something nice and predictable about silence, maintaining the status quo and avoiding change.  But without change there in fact can be no new birth.  And in the end it is just that simple, we are only saved through change.  It is new birth that most threatens the safety and security of our kingdoms and it is only new birth that can save us from ourselves.  There is a message that has shattered the silence in Chapter 2 that had existed for 400 years and it shatters our silence as well.  We are not alone.  Emmanuel, God is with us.

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